Theresa May’s self-inflicted electoral injury
Politics is one game in which practitioners seek to exploit the misery of their adversaries to maximum advantage. When the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap election for June 8, her Conservative Party had an unassailable lead in the House of Commons. The main opposition party, Labour, was in disarray; its Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was generally considered an electoral liability of great magnitude. The Conservative Party had over 20 points lead over Labour in the opinion polls. Prime Minister Theresa May would be excused for having assumed that the June 8 election would be a walkover for her party, a landslide victory of historical proportions anticipated.
At the back of May’s mind were the negotiations Britain would have to make with the European Union, having triggered Article 50 which gave legal backing to Britain’s intention to quit the Union in the aftermath of the referendum held to that effect in 2016. She also saw the June 8 election as a mandate on her leadership, having only inherited the prime ministerial position following David Cameron’s resignation. She very much wanted to be seen as having led her Conservative Party to victory in a major election.
Exit from Europe, popularly known as “Brexit”, was the main theme of Theresa May’s rather shambolic campaign. She urged voters to support her and the Conservative Party in negotiating with Europe from a position of strength. However, there were quite a number of other issues which the Labour Party, in particular, simplified before the electorate. Such issues include health, education, public transportation, security, among many others. Promises of improved social welfare, which included scrapping of tuition fees, resonated with the aspirations of the youth and poor in society. Corbyn came on top in the campaign, with voters appreciating the skills he had acquired in more than 30 years of participation in electoral politics. He came across as a very genuine personality. His lack of experience in governance seemed compensated by the consistency of his views as a legislator.
There were 650 seats at stake in the House of Commons. A political party must secure at least 326 seats to be adjudged as having a clear majority, failing which a coalition government would have to be agreed. The Conservative Party won 318 seats, while Labour won 262. Labour, in spite of coming second, celebrates because it has gained 29 additional seats. It was gloom for the Conservatives who lost their majority status in the House. There were calls for Theresa May to resign, but she would probably hang on in the meantime.
The June 2017 election proved to be a major gamble for Theresa May. In calling the election, she probably did not reflect on the fact that the 2016 Brexit referendum was keenly contested. Those who had voted to remain in Europe saw the election as an opportunity to fight back. There were not a few who believed they were misled into voting for Brexit and had since changed their minds. More significantly, young voters who had not taken the Brexit referendum seriously, came out in large numbers to register their discontent. Thirty-two million two hundred thousand people voted out of the 46,900,000 who were eligible to do so, representing a turnout of 68.7 per cent – the highest proportion since the 1997 General Election.
In Scotland, where 59 seats were contested, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 35 seats, representing a drop of 21 seats from the 2015 General Election which had seen the Party win 56 seats. The Leader of the Party, Nicola Sturgeon, had been very vociferous about independence for Scotland. In spite of the rejection of that position in the 2014 referendum, the SNP leadership kept on insisting on another one. Decline in the 2017 General Election would have considerably dampened that aspiration.
The implications of the June 2017 General Election will be seen in the days and months ahead, as Britain negotiates terms of its exit from the European Union. The Opposition has become a lot stronger by virtue of electoral gains, and this means quite a number of positions may have to be compromised. Vigorous debates and disagreements can be anticipated, but the ability of Britons to patriotically resolve issues of national interest has hardly been questioned.